UAE vs Bahrain: Test run for crunch World Cup qualifier

Friendly fixture between UAE and Bahrain was an opportunity for Mahdi Ali to finalize things ahead of next week’s crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

Wednesday’s friendly fixture between UAE and Bahrain was an opportunity for Mahdi Ali to finalize things ahead of next week’s crucial 2018 World Cup qualifier. Scope for experimentation is at a premium at this stage of the cycle, but this was a chance to test certain combinations and selections before the road to Russia is plotted.

And yet not much was gleaned from the 2-0 win over Bahrain in front of a desperately sparse crowd at the Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Ismail Matar opened the scoring with a finish from close-range before Walid Abbas doubled the hosts’ advantage with an exceptional strike. It was a comfortable outing for UAE, but that’s really what they wanted from the game.

Of course, a match against a team ranked 53 places below them was never likely to present much of a challenge to Ali’s side. In a sense, they got what they needed - a warm-up for the main next week, with no injuries sustained. But playing no match at all would have achieved that. Ali could have simply led a week of training and delivered the same end result if the scoreline was of no significance.

Starting places were handed to goalkeeper Ali Khaseif and defender Hamdan Al Kamali, with veteran Mater also afforded a rare start, but the decision made on these spots were mainly for the purpose of keeping everyone happy. Vindicating fringe players for sticking around.

Omar Abdulrahman was nominated as one of three candidates for the 2016 AFC Player of the Year on Wednesday, but his subdued performance did little to underline his candidacy. He is the best player in the Asian game right now, regardless of whether he wins the award or not, but his display was reflective of a general sluggishness and lack of inspiration from an Emirati perspective. That might have been understandable, but nonetheless there wasn’t much to talk about after the full time whistle had blown.

There were glimpses of Abdulrahman’s brilliance at certain times, like when his cutting pass through the Bahrain defence ultimately produced the opportunity for Matar to net the opener. Besides that, however, the playmaker, around which UAE revolve, was quiet. That can’t happen against Iraq next week. His country needs him in top form.

The fear is that Abdulrahman carries the apathy of Wednesday’s friendly into next week’s World Cup qualifier. Minds were cast back to the UAE’s 3-0 defeat to Saudi Arabia, in which the playmaker certainly didn’t play to the best of his ability, leaving Ali’s side sitting in fourth place in World Cup qualification. They have work to do if they are to drag themselves back up into contention in Group B.

It might seem harsh to point out the lack of consequence and meaning of a friendly, particularly an international friendly. But Wednesday’s match against Bahrain came at a crucial juncture for UAE. Everything matters right now, even midweek friendly fixtures played in front of the smallest of crowds.

There has never before been more on the line for Emirati football. The country has revelled in the shimmer of a golden generation over the past few years, with breakthroughs at the Olympics and the Asian Cup. The AFC Champions League final involving Al Ain later this month could underline just how far the sport in UAE has come in a relatively short time.

And yet what will it matter if this generation fails to make it to a World Cup? That is football’s grandest stage where the best teams play. So while the UAE national team has undoubtedly made great strides in recent years it’s all a means to an end, that end being qualifying for a World Cup. Without achieving that objective all the rest will seem somewhat hollow.

That is why every match matters at the moment. Wednesday’s friendly might well have provided the perfect preparation for next week’s crunch qualifier against Iraq, only hindsight will tell us that, but as things stand there is a question to be posed. If nothing was learned what was the point?